With one diploma, a reminder of our ignorance

Fifty-five years is an awfully long time to wait before giving an African-American man the diploma he was denied because he had a picnic in park that was off-limits to blacks.

The Galesburg, Illinois, class of ’59 had its 55th reunion over the weekend and someone thought it might be a good idea to give Alva Early his diploma, NPR reports.

After Early was denied his diploma, several colleges withdrew their acceptance letters. He did OK; he became a lawyer. But still…

“The fact that I could not get a cap and gown on and march down the aisle with my classmates — it meant the world to me,” he says. “It hurt so bad.”

He kept it a secret until a Knox College reunion last year, when he told some of those former high school classmates, including Owen Muelder.

“Well, we were thunderstruck,” says Muelder, a Knox College historian who runs the Underground Railroad museum on campus.

“Here’s this community and college founded before the Civil War, that was a leader in the anti-slavery movement,” he says, “and here it was that a little over 100 years later something so outrageous could have occurred in our community.”

“The important thing was not that I got the diploma,” he said. “It was that they tried to get me a diploma. They succeeded. They cared about me.”

  • Jack

    First paragraph is confusing – but I see from the NPR story is that it was the park (where the picnic was) that was off limits to blacks. The way it is currently written it appears that the picnic was off-limits to blacks.

    Excellent story otherwise. About time they gave him the diploma.